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Iran Analysis: Has Regime Risked Its Legitimacy By Blocking Rafsanjani?

Cartoon: Mana Neyestani

On Tuesday, as the Guardian Council decided which candidates would be allowed to contest the Presidential election, we posed four questions and possible answers. Among them:

Given [former President Hashemi] Rafsanjani's contentious relationship with the Government and elements of the regime since 2009, when he used a Tehran Friday Prayer to back protests over the disputed election of Ahmadinejad, will the Supreme Leader's men allow him to campaign?

I think they will, given the danger of a backlash from the public as well as Rafsanjani's political base if he is stopped.

On Tuesday night, the Ministry of Interior released the Council's list of eight approved candidates. Unsurprisingly, President Ahmadinejad's right-hand man Esfandiar Rahim-Mashai was not among them.

Surprisingly --- at least to us --- Rafsanjani was also excluded, with his ally Hassan Rohani allowed through as a less prominent alternative.

Elements in the regime had decided to slap down Rafsanjani now, rather than during the campaign. What's more, they made their move quickly. The Minister of Interior was not supposed to release the list of candidates until Wednesday; however, it was leaked to Mehr News Agency on Tuesday afternoon and confirmed by State TV and other media in the evening.

The decision to block Rafsanjani is not final. While the Council will not hear any appeal, the Supreme Leader could re-instate the former President, as he did with two reformist candidates in 2005.

At this point, however, it appears that Ayatollah Khamenei, as well as institutions like the Guardian Council, have decided to risk any shred of legitimacy for the elections rather than face a possible Rafsanjani victory, or even the inconvenience of a provocative campaign challenging the performance of the Iranian system in recent years.

A fellow analyst had a different view on Tuesday at a meeting in London. He argued that the Supreme Leader has a history of playing divide-and-rule with Iran's politicians, pitting them against each other until he made a decision late in the process --- or even exerted his control after the election.

That opinion, however, ignores the marker of the disputed 2009 Presidential contest with the manipulation of the vote --- after the excitement of a "genuine" campaign --- and the subsequent mass protests.

While the Supreme Leader stepped in to anoint President Ahmadinejad as the victor, notably in a speech on 19 June that told dissenters to shut up or face punishment, he has not managed amid the events of the subsequent four years to fully --- or even significantly --- restore legitimacy. Two of the candidates from 2009 have been under house arrests for 27 months, other opposition activists are in prison, and political parties have been banned. The "legitimate" groups in the system, facing economic strains, have turned against each other, as in the battle against President Ahmadinejad's "deviant current".

The difficulty for the regime in restoring legitimacy was painfully evident at the start of this year, when Ayatollah Khamenei denounced the label "free election" as a cover for "sedition" by dissenters --- including reformist groups --- and their alleged foreign supporters. Ayatollah Khamenei could not answer the subsequent question: if this process was not a "free election", what was it?

Hashemi Rafsanjani's entry into the race on 11 May, with the way paved by former President Mohammad Khatami, brought back both the challenge of 2009 and the challenge of the "free election". Rafsanjani was not only going to stand for his "moderate conservative" base, built since the 1980s; he was going to represent many reformists, and even members of the Green Movement, suppressed and shut out of the system since the last Presidential campaign. The spontaneous demonstrations and celebrations as word spread of his candidacy testified to the coalition that could ruin the high-level plans of the regime for an acceptable "unity" victor.

Paradoxically, however, Rafsanjani's candidacy also gave the Supreme Leader and his allies the opportunity to re-establish legitimacy. The former President's involvement would ensure that the campaign was more than an orchestrated show offering little excitement. Ayatollah Khamenei's preferred candidate --- say, a Saeed Jalili --- could use the power of regime institutions, networks, and patronage to mobilise enough votes to defeat Rafsanjani in a run-off, or at least gather enough support where a victory could be declared.

Assuming Ayatollah Khamenei does not re-instate Rafsanjani, that possibility was spurned on Tuesday. It may have been because of fear of Rafsanjani, but it also may have been out of concern that the regime will not have a "unity" candidate with wide appeal --- Ali Akbar Velayati and Gholam Ali Haddad Adel lack charisma, Tehran Mayor Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf may be too "independent" for the Leader, Jalili is emerging but has no previous electoral experience --- for the campaign.

So after the new President is declared on 21 June in the election which cannot be called a "free election", the bigger contest for the regime --- beset by economic problems, facing difficulties over its foreign policy and "Islamic Awakening", caught up in political rivalry --- remains....

How does it convince its people, many of them resigned to the decline of recent years, that its Islamic Republic is still legitimate?

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